State of belief

A few years ago, I invited a friend – let’s call her Jenny because she will really hate that – to come with me to a Kansas City Royals game. Jenny is a spirited sports fan almost to the point of madness – football, basketball, NASCAR, volleyball, you name it. The style of her clothes, the color of her car, the weekend and vacation choices she makes all tend to revolve around sports passions of one kind or another.

She said no to the Royals game, though. Jenny said she just didn’t care for baseball.

These days, Jenny spends roughly 72.3 percent of her waking time thinking about the Kansas City Royals. She thrills in their victories and dies a little when they lose and constantly frets about the health of Greg Holland, the daily punishment endured by Salvador Perez or the slump of Johnny Cueto. She calls the team “we” – her highest compliment that had been reserved only for her college team – and she never misses a minute of action on radio, television or live. She daydreams about Lorenzo Cain catches and Eric Hosmer line drives and Wade Davis fastballs to close out the side. She believes deeply.

Whenever I see Jenny, I kid her about this, and she laughs, but, in truth, she barely remembers the time before baseball. The Royals so consume her now that everything that came before feels like some fuzzy, half-forgotten dream. And now, after the Royals have officially clinched the American League Central – a clinching that was a forgone conclusion almost the entire year – I wait for the text she will send, the one that she has sent many times before, the one that will say, “Can you believe these Royals?”

* * *

For the better part of two decades, the Kansas City Royals seemed all but dead in Kansas City. The losing has been well documented. The hopelessness has been well documented. Between 1995 and 2013, the Royals finished 10th or worse in American League attendance every single year – they averaged fewer than 20,000 fans per game. Few watched on television. Few wore blue. Sports talk radio in the summer was a blend of Kansas City Chiefs football, some back and forth between Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State sports fans, and the occasional grump who called in to demand that David Glass sell the Royals to an owner who actually cared.

There were always diehards, of course … Royals fans who openly kept the faith through the dark times. But more, much more, life in Kansas City just went on without baseball. The Royals were the breezy opening line at a party: “So, it looks like the Royals are going to be terrible again!” or “That Zack Greinke is a good pitcher, I wonder how much longer until he leaves,” or “Remember how great it was when the Royals were actually good?” Then people would talk about the weather or the school system or the latest Paul Rudd movie.

Again and again in those days, the Royals reached back to their past just to spark some kind of connection. Hey, it’s the 15th anniversary of the Royals’ World Series victory! Now it’s the 20th! Hey, now, it’s the Silver Anniversary! The team reached back so often to George Brett and Frank White and Willie Wilson and Dennis Leonard and Bret Saberhagen and that bunch of Kansas City players who actually won things that at some point even those players got sick of talking about the past.

But what else could anyone do? The ghosts of Royals past were all that the team had. The gloomy present-tense Royals were alternately a team of shaky prospects hoping to blossom all at once or a team of underpaid veterans hoping to recapture a little bit of youth. The worst part was that just about all of them – the promising kids, the developing talents, the aging veterans – had one ambition: Get the heck out of Kansas City. The kids dreamed of free agency. The old warhorses dreamed of one good year so they could get a decent contract with someone else. The fans knew that and it made Royals baseball miserable. Even the good ones wanted out.

The team seemed perpetually tapped for dough. That didn’t help either. Major League Baseball was being dominated by the Yankees and the Red Sox, the teams with all the cash. And the Royals? One year, the Royals looked at the books and determined they could not afford to buy new uniforms for a special salute to the Negro Leagues – this, even though the Negro Leagues museum is in Kansas City. Another year, they canceled the annual Royals banquet in a cost-cutting measure. Still another, they couldn’t find an extra million bucks to sign their star Carlos Beltran. Rooting for the Royals was like rooting to find money in the street.

Some of the ways the Royals tried to make up for their lack of money were almost comical. After the Royals signed Johnny Damon out of high school, they bought him a Kansas City home in the hope that he would grow attached to the city. Damon liked the city just fine. And when the time was right, he put the house on the market, demanded a trade, and got out.

* * *

The town is blue, now. The Royals are everything, now. Kansas City has become the most fervent baseball watching town in America, with nation-leading local television ratings that crush everything in prime time. The fans just set the record for the highest attendance in team history — more than 2.5 million have already come to Royals games this year, this in a metro area of barely two million. The Royals are all anyone talks about.

You could say this comes from winning – bandwagon fans, I’ve heard people say – but I would argue that winning is only part of it. All those years when the Royals were terrible, laughable, ridiculous, sure, it seemed like nobody cared. But it wasn’t so. People cared. There was just no way to express it. How many times can you scream? How many times can you feign enthusiasm? How many times can you complain about the unfairness of the game or the incompetence of management or the ineptitude of players before it all becomes a giant bore?

But they cared. Every year, they showed up to sell out Opening Day. Every year, they would show up to boo the cross-state Cardinals. When the Royals would go on a rare winning streak, a few fans would poke their heads out of their bunkers to see if it was safe to come out. When an interesting new player came along – a Mike Sweeney or a Carlos Beltran or a Zack Greinke – fans would check in, almost against their better judgment, to see if this one would be different. When a new manager was hired, when a kid would be called up from the minors, when an unexpected player like Raul Ibanez or Paul Byrd or Joakim Soria emerged, Kansas City would very quietly buzz.

And it’s clear now that what was happening during those dark years was not indifference but instead a cosmic stockpiling of enthusiasm and optimism and hope. People were paying attention. They were waiting. And when the Royals gave them a reason – a real reason – to care and believe, they would pour out into the streets and party like it was the final scene of Return of the Jedi.

And that is what’s happening now. The Royals’ general manager, Dayton Moore, and his scouts built a good baseball team that plays 2015 baseball: great defense, dominating bullpen, high batting average, put the ball in play. They surprised all the way to the World Series last year. They have owned the American League Central more or less from Opening Day this year. They have likable stars – Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Wade Davis – and they play thrilling games. And while sports can’t fix the schools or repair potholes or end gridlock in government, well, Kansas City is transformed just a little bit.

* * *

A couple of months before he died in 2006, Negro Leagues legend and perpetually hopeful Royals fan Buck O’Neil was sitting in the audience while a few less knowledgeable baseball people – myself included – talked about the Royals in an event at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Buck had many gifts. He had a beautiful singing voice. He was a magnificent story teller. He was an unparalleled dresser. He had been, in his Negro Leagues days, a superb first baseman, and he knew how to handle the bat.

If I could sum up Buck O’Neil’s greatest gift, it was his ability to see the world as a beautiful place. He had his reasons to feel bitter. He had been denied the chance to play, or manage, in the Major Leagues. He had been called all the names, refused service, treated as something less than human. He once had to wear a grass skirt just to play baseball, and he talked with tears in his eyes about the times his wife could not try on a hat, because if a black woman tried on a hat in the 1950s, she had to buy it. Still, he could not stop believing in the goodness of people or the promise of tomorrow or the chances of the underdog. His favorite word – and he would shout it out sometimes for no reason at all – was “Yeah!”

So that day of the panel, the question was asked: How can the Royals ever hope to compete against the Yankees? We on the panel hemmed and hawed for a while about that until Buck, aged 94, had heard all that he could hear. He stood up.

“Of course the Royals can beat the Yankees,” he said. “Yeah! It doesn’t matter how much money they spend. It doesn’t matter how many stars they have. Yeah! They can only put nine players on the field at one time, same as Kansas City. None of that other stuff matters. Everyone just has to believe they can win. Yeah!”

Everyone applauded, of course, but I’m not sure how many people really bought what Buck was saying. It sounded very Peter Pan, all that stuff about “you just have to believe.” Sports fans as a whole have become much more skeptical over the years about those things you cannot see, things like belief and chemistry and guts and all that. The Royals’ problems – like not having very good baseball players – seemed much too real to solve with something as nebulous as belief.

It’s almost a decade later now, and the Royals just became the first team in baseball to clinch a division title. I often think about how much Buck would have loved this. Sure, the early clinching is in part because the Royals play in a pretty weak division. But, look: In the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays are playing baseball at a supreme level. They have outscored their opponents by 217 runs – this is historic. They are on pace for the largest run differential since the 116-win Seattle Mariners in 2001. The Royals, in contrast, have outscored opponents by just 78 runs.

Put another way, the Royals have scored 144 fewer runs than Toronto while giving up almost exactly the same number (the Royals have allowed five fewer runs).

But the Royals have a better record. How? Why? The Blue Jays lose the close games (13-27 in one-run games) and the Royals win them (23-16). The Blue Jays have one of the league’s worst records when scoring three or four runs (11-22) while the Royals have the league’s best record when scoring three or four (29-9).

What’s the reason for those differences? It could be because of the Royals’ sensational bullpen. It could be because the Royals are better defensively. It could be that the Royals have just been a consistent team while the Blue Jays have been bipolar, having plodded around aimlessly for the first 100 or so games and then, after acquiring David Price, transforming into an almost unbeatable force of nature (since Aug. 1, the Blue Jays are an insane 34-13.).

Or, well, romantically I can’t help but think that it goes back to Buck’s old line about belief. They’ve been saving their belief in Kansas City for a long time, and now it pours out from all parts of the region – from management, from the players, and mostly from the fans whether they are on the Kansas and Iowa and Oklahoma farms or stuck in traffic in Overland Park or wandering the stores at the Plaza or eating barbecue at one of the many Gates locations (where someone is right now shouting, “Hi, may I help you?”). Baseball belief is everywhere around Kansas City now after so many years of dreariness.

Does belief really help the team win more one-run games? Can that belief really carry a team to the World Series and then, somehow, carry them there again the next year? I don’t know the answer, but I know what Buck O’Neil would say. He would say, “Yeah!”

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